Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Democracy as a way of life

 By bayo Ogunmupe

AS we celebrate the third anniversary of our fourth experiment in democracy, it is pertinent to ruminate about democracy as a way of life. From the facts of history, we can confirm that democracy as a form of government evolved over time. It did not appear suddenly somewhere, complete and perfect. It is always a matter of the degree of democracy extant at a particular point in time. Was ancient Athens a complete democracy? No, because Athens permitted slavery in much the same way the Magna Carta could not guarantee total democracy in England, since serfdom persisted and many rights were still denied the commoners. What then is complete democracy? The answer lies in the fact that democracy is more than a form of government, it is a way of life. This is so because democracy should be at work everywhere in our lives; not just in politics and government, but in our everyday habits and customs. We must exhibit democracy in our treatment of people of other tribes and differing religions'. We must show democracy in our attitude towards our fellow workers and neighbours.

A country may have a high degree of democracy in its form of government and yet a very low degree of democracy in other aspects of its life, such as ethnic relations, religious tolerance, equality of opportunity to find a job or attend college of one's choice. The form of government is an important part of democracy but that is not all. Often the most suitable governmental form for a democracy is a republic. That is, a form wherein the holding of office depends on voting rather than on hereditary succession. But if you stopped to think, you can probably name a country where the government was and still is a monarchy rather than a republic. The nation nonetheless has made great contributions to democracy.

We have just been discussing the case of England in the Middle Ages and in the 17th century. It is called Great Britain today. Also, it is interesting to recall that the democratic republic of ancient Athens did not elect representatives. The number of citizens had chances to fill officers in rotation or by lot. This arrangement is known as pure democracy because all voters were included not merely represented in the law making assembly. It is important, however, to be mindful of the things the majority tells the government to do. Would it be democratic if the majority started telling the government to persecute non-indigenes or certain ethnic groups or some religious minorities? In other words, in addition to having their way, a democratic majority must foster the desire to give everyone equal rights and opportunities.

It so often happens that a group captures the will of the majority at a point in time in a democracy. In the regime of President Shehu Shagari, the aristrocracy captured the will of the majority and ruled Nigeria until the Armed Forces took over. The bourgeousie ruled the United States in the administration of Ronald Reagan. And the plebians in turn wrested power from them through Bill Clinton. That is what happens in democracies. Perhaps you can now see why we must put democracy to work whenever and wherever we can. A complete democracy brings ever increasing opportunities of betterment to the whole people, not only in politics, but in education, ethnic relations, healthcare and all that goes to making a good community in which people are happy to live.

Historically, it is not easy to make great progress in every field of democracy at once. Let us reflect on the fact that the United States started with the fullest, political democracy which had existed up to that time, yet it did not abolish slavery until more than 85 years later and then only as a result of a bitter civil war. However, we must remember that there are honest differences of opinion about forms and aspects of democracy. For instance, many Nigerians sincerely believe that under the present circumstances it is more important to have an Ibo president than to have a great president. You cannot be sure of the truth about any political issue. Thus, your opinion must be given in humility. If you are inflexible, you close the door to learning more truth. One person can be right in a group and others wrong. Voting does not determine the truth, it determines the line of action the most people want in the full spirit of democracy. The French sage, Voltaire once wrote to his more radical friend, Helvetius: "I disagree with every word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." Even though we cannot attain a goal as full and quickly as we would like, it is good to have a goal to aim at. The best tribute we can pay to democracy is to put it to work.

Published in the Guardian Newspapers

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